AT a well-protected compound nestled in a pine forest near New Orleans, nine cynomologus monkeys live in the eye of a storm energized by proponents of animal use in scientific research and a growing national movement for animal rights. Animal-research supporters, including the federally funded lab here that is the animals' home, say the nine monkeys still suffer from the poor care they received at an East Coast lab eight years ago and should be put to sleep.
But animal-rights advocates have gone to federal court to block the monkeys' death. They claim it is not the monkeys' discomfort - which they say is not evident - but embarrassment over ``science gone awry'' that is motivating the monkeys' caretakers. They want the monkeys, some of which have lost the use of limbs through experimentation or amputation, to be released to another home outside the research community.
Known as the Silver Spring monkeys, after the Maryland research lab from which they were removed in 1981, the animals have been the subject of letter-writing campaigns. College chapters of animal rights organizations have also joined the battle and have staged picket-studded protests with signs saying, ``Save the Silver Spring Nine!''
That nine monkeys living in a quiet Louisiana town have become the focus of so much controversy illustrates the extent to which animal rights has become a national issue.
Yet even amid the protracted Silver Spring controversy, some middle ground is being found. This largely results from economic forces, progress in biotechnology research, and the realization on both sides that treatment of animals in laboratories has improved during the last 10 years.
The Silver Spring monkeys were set to be euthanatized last year until animal rightists sought a restraining order blocking the move. A federal court in New Orleans is scheduled to hear a government motion March 29 to dismiss the order.
``The animal rights people are using these monkeys to make their case that animal research is cruel,'' says Peter Gerone of the Delta Regional Primate Research Center here. The center took the monkeys at the request of the National Institute of Health in 1986. ``What these monkeys really are for them is a rallying point,'' he says.
Animal-rights advocates say the monkeys indeed symbolize the backwardness, cruelty - and, many of them believe, senselessness - of animal experimentation. They bristle, however, at any suggestion that they would prolong painful lives for the benefit of their movement.
``It's a shrewd campaign on the [research advocates'] part, but we'd never be opposed to euthanasia if the animals were in pain,'' says Alex Pacheco, chairman of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
MR. PACHECO, whose organization has grown over the period of the Silver Spring case to more than 250,000 members, notes that as a former animal-shelter employee, he ``put down'' thousands of animals who had no homes. But he says the monkeys have the promise of a good home. He adds that by living more public lives, ``They'd live to tell their story.''
Research proponents say the fact the animal-rights advocates don't want the monkeys euthanatized proves them to be, not primarily animal lovers, but antiresearch, even antihuman.
Dr. Gerone notes that the animal-rights movement has made it increasingly difficult across the country for shelters to sell animals about to be destroyed to universities as lab animals.
``So we end up paying more money for bred dogs, and two animals die instead of one,'' he says. ``So I ask, are they for animals, or against research and saving human lives? I suggest it's the latter.'' In any case, animal-rights advocates have made considerable progress, with even animal research supporters agreeing that the treatment of animals in labs has improved.
Now federally funded labs must have animal use and care committees to approve all use of animals in experiments and to oversee their treatment.
A growing number of consumer-product companies are turning to other means of testing. Avon announced last week, for example, that it would soon cease all animal testing - sparing 10,000 animals annually.
With industry funding, Johns Hopkins University has set up the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing whose goal is to find alternatives to all animal use in consumer-products testing.
Economic factors are also working to cut down the use of animals in experiments. Monkeys that cost $50 15 years ago now can cost up to $1,500. Biotechnology researchers are developing tests that use test-tube cultures, chicken egg membranes, and cloned human skin cultures - which are they say are potentially less expensive, and more reproducible and definitive, than animal testing.
A chorus of voices, some from within the medical profession, even claims that animal testing actually hurts medical research. An emphasis on ``the horse-and-buggy techniques'' of animal experimentation ``discourages researchers and students in the medical schools from taking advantage of more modern technology,'' says Neal Barnard, a doctor and psychiatrist who heads the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
DR. BARNARD says his organization is concerned that animal testing, which is generally slow to produce definitive results, is being used to thwart findings that would disrupt lucrative markets. He cites the case of the controversial growth-retardant chemical Alar (daminozide), which is used in orchards to enhance the appearance of red apples. It cannot be washed or peeled away.
``It's very dangerous, especially for children,'' Barnard says, ``but the most the [Environmental Protection Agency] will say is, `We're not going to take it off the market until animal tests prove it's a carcinogen.''' Requiring animal testing is a perfect way, Barnard adds, to ``stall the decision-making process that could save people - and all for a $20 million industry.''
The Delta Center's Gerone says that, while heartened by the polls, he is concerned that biomedical research will be ``nibbled to death'' by animal advocates. ``They're costing us more money all the time that should be going into research,'' he says.
Noting that about 70 percent of his center's $6 million budget is spent on AIDS research, Gerone says there are some areas - such as eye surgery and AIDS research - that have no substitute for animal experiments. ``Dropping reasatsearch in these areas because they require animal use doesn't seem very humane to me,'' he says.